As I've noted here before, journalists are taught to be objective. For "objective," read "cynical and suspicious." I didn't need much training, as I was cynical and suspicious before I decided to become a journalist.
And then I went to George Kinder's two-day workshop on money maturity, this one in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., at the end of August. I was won over. I felt like part of the group. I wanted to be part of the group. Indeed, I wanted to be part of the group more than I wanted to be an objective observer. So, fair warning on this column: I may sound more like a groupie than a reporter. This has never happened to me before. Take it for what it's worth.
Most advisors are familiar with Kinder's work. In 1999, he wrote The Seven Stages of Money Maturity, a book intended to help readers work through the emotional issues around money so that they could prepare to do regular financial planning. He first tried offering life planning workshops to consumers but that didn't work out. He found a more receptive audience, however, among financial advisors wanting to learn holistic life planning. Kinder began structuring programs for them, first a two-day workshop, then a five-day workshop and finally a six-month mentorship that could lead to certification as a Registered Life Planner (RLP).
In 2000, Kinder sold his financial planning practice. In 2002, he founded the Kinder Institute to work full time on training planners, which he is now doing all over the world with recent workshops in the Netherlands, South Africa and London.
Perhaps what surprised me most in the workshop I attended was that Kinder was not just talk and fluff. He had developed a clear structure to help planners work with clients to uncover the true passion in their lives so that their financial plan will be more effective. And he worked-hard-for two full nine-hour days to convey his excitement to workshop participants about how this kind of work can change clients' lives.
Kinder is perhaps best known for the three questions he recommends each person ask himself: How would you live your life if you had all the money you needed? What would you do if you learned you had only five to ten years to live? Finally, what would you most regret if you had just 24 hours left? In our workshop, after we'd written out answers to these questions, we went on to learn about what brings us anxiety-and what brings us joy-in our own experiences with money.
Although most participants, about 25 to 30 total, were financial planners-some from independent firms or from large multifamily offices like GenSpring, and some from small community banks or large global banks-the workshop was a personal experience first rather than a professional one, and it opened our eyes to money disorders in our own lives. This allowed us to focus on the crucial preliminary step, which is to understand and clear away the obstacles before turning to the dollars and cents of planning.
We worked with partners, exploring how early money experiences shaped us or singed us. For example, Kinder had each attendee tell a personal money story to his partner, who was not allowed to say anything during the story. Listening is a crucial part of what Kinder teaches. He cites a study that claims the time between the advisor's first question to the client-"Why are you here?"-and the beginning of sales talk about a product is 82 seconds on average. Not much time to get a flavor of the client's life. Listening proves critical.
I found it to be true. I told a story to my empathetic partner, Eric, that I had never told to anyone before. When I was five, my family lived in a cabin without plumbing or electricity on a lake in northern Minnesota. One winter night, my father was gone, as was often the case; my two-year-old brother was toddling around, bumping into things and falling down; Mom was in bed, crying out to me: "Bring more towels. Bring more towels." When I took the used towels away, they were soaked in blood. Mom said she needed help and I must go to a store, which was a couple of miles away, at night, in a snowstorm, with a note asking for a doctor and for help. I don't remember much about my trip to the store. But I will never forget the incident, which I later came to learn was one of her many miscarriages. These are stories we were shamed into burying, into keeping secret. They are the stories that formed us.
Eric sat and looked at me as I told my story. He didn't say anything. And I felt listened to and seen and heard. The stories others told were not mean and spiteful but touching, nuanced stories about generosity or fear that had moved this person deeply. One planner talked about the first time he bought something for his dad-a riding lawnmower-and the conflict and doubts he went through. Kinder also led several meditations and brought some of his Buddhist teachings into the seminar. (He leads weeklong Buddhist retreats several times a year.)